Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Wilson Tortosa
192 pages, black and white
Published by Del Rey
I know, it sounds at first like a bet gone wrong. A manga version of one of the most popular comic book characters of all time? But that’s exactly what Del Rey (with the obvious cooperation of Marvel Comics) aimed to do with Wolverine: Prodigal Son. It’s not a bad idea when you think about it; take the core ideas of what make the character popular and then map them onto another style. Considering Marvel has published every other alternate version possible of their own characters, it’s not a bad idea. But will manga fans pick it up? And if so, just what will they find?
At the Quiet Earth School for Young People, Logan’s a bit of a misfit. He doesn’t know any of his life before being found in the forest, he heals unnaturally fast, and while he’s a master of martial arts, his social skills would rank him at the bottom of the class. His only real friend is Tamara, the daughter of the head of the Quiet Earth School. When Logan agrees to take a near-impossible test in exchange for a weekend pass to New York City, it sets in motion a sequence of events that will forever change both his life and everyone else’s at the Quiet Earth School…
Antony Johnston hits just the right combination of elements for Wolverine: Prodigal Son; if you’d never heard of the X-Men or Wolverine before, it would be a logical assumption that this really was a Japanese comic series. The young outcast at the dojo, his rocky relationship with both friends and competitors, the crazy tests of skill, it’s all there. At the same time, though, it’s true to the original Wolverine’s character and basic background sketch. It’s interesting because on the one hand, Johnston is closely bound on some basic ideas of the character, but on the other hand beyond those he’s utterly free to do whatever he wants. There don’t seem to be any X-Men in the world of Wolverine: Prodigal Son (or even other superheroes) and it lets Johnston take the story in all sorts of different directions. That’s something that becomes particularly true around the halfway point of the book. I have to give Johnston credit that while I was enjoying the book up until that point, it’s there that things begin to pick up and you get the sense that anything could happen. So while familiar elements continue to show up in small bits and pieces, I have to say that all of the setup from Volume 1 just makes me more interested in what he’ll do with it for Volume 2.
I wasn’t familiar with Wilson Tortosa’s art before, but it’s nice. It’s certainly strongly influenced by manga, mixing the cartoonish with the rough and gritty. I actually prefer Tortosa’s art when it’s hitting more of the latter; the early pages of Wolverine: Prodigal Son felt a little too clean and polished for my tastes at first, but as the story grew darker (and presumably Tortosa got further into the project) the art began to shift into something that really worked much better. It may seem like a strange thing to fixate on, but I was particularly pleased with how Tortosa drew Wolverine’s claws. They’re rough and ragged, and it’s that sort of rough-hewn look that fits the story and mood that’s being generated here. It’s not perfect—most characters seem to have a limited number of expressions—but Tortosa’s work here is one of the few projects where you can literally see the artist getting better with every page.
With all of this, though, the question still remains—will the new generation of comic fans pick up Wolverine: Prodigal Son? I honestly can’t decide. There’s such a wealth of manga already out there that it’s not like there aren’t other options available to also be bought. And generally speaking, there doesn’t seem to be a particularly large crossover between kids who get into comics via manga and those through superheroes (although that overlap does indeed exist). Hopefully books like this and the upcoming X-Men manga might help bridge the gap. It might be a losing battle, but if so, at least Del Rey’s assembled strong creators to give it their best shot.